There's something surreal about watching a congressional hearing in which a room full of men spend a morning publicly discussing birth control, menstrual pain, ovarian cancer, and migraine headaches. But Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened just such a hearing on Thursday.
The hearing, entitled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama administration trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" was striking for its lack of female voices. Democrats on the committee had attempted to include at least one female viewpoint, that of Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University, a Catholic university whose health plan doesn't cover contraception. But Issa deemed Fluke "not qualified" and plowed ahead despite the obvious flaw of holding a hearing on birth control coverage that doesn't include a single member of the population most likely to use it.
Democrat Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) protested the glaring omission in her opening statement: "What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?"
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) expressed outrage over the nature of the hearing, which not only excluded women but also witnesses who didn't agree with the Catholic Church. Aiming his criticism at Issa, he said,
I think everyone understands what is going on here today. The Chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a “war” against religion. He has stacked the hearing with witnesses who agree with his position. He has not invited the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, Catholics United, or a host of other Catholic groups that praised the White House for making the accommodation they made last week. He has also refused to allow a minority witness to testify about the interests of women who want safe and affordable coverage for basic preventive health care, including contraception. In my opinion, this Committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless, or worthless, or irrelevant to this debate.
The rhetoric at the hearing got so one-sided that, at one point, the Democratic women on the committee actually left the room, with DC Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) denouncing Issa's hearing management as akin to that of "autocratic regimes."
The hearing dragged on, with Republicans providing plenty of fodder for future Democratic campaign ads blasting them for being anti-women, with Democrats responding with actual science on the many ways that birth control pills can save lives, not just prevent pregnancy. And on it went, in a proceeding that made it hard to believe it's 2012 and not 1912. After three hours of testimony and questions, the committee took a break, and then returned for a second panel of witnesses. That panel included two women. But of course, they were opposed to birth control requirements, too.